The captivating world of the art project Vino puu (Crooked Tree) took over Galleria Kuvitus in November 2018: The gallery hosted an exhibition consisting of Ilja Karsikas’ ink drawings, wood carvings and serigraphs – a series of rough portraits as well as different abstract nature motifs and geometrical shapes. Black, white and grey brought them all together. The hue of untreated wood emphasized the sense of materiality. The exhibit also included four performances that combined rock music and theatre, a music video and a printed publication.
THE GROWING TREE
It all began with a concept and interdisciplinary promises. When Ilja Karsikas sent me his preliminary exhibit plan, it described a ‘soniferous exhibit,’ an art project that would combine text, music, illustration and performance art. At the time all of this was merely an idea, but Karsikas and his team had exactly one year to plan and realise the polyphonic artwork that came to be called Crooked Tree (Vino puu).
Seven months later I was sipping coffee at the premises of the Super8 art collective while Karsikas was pulling the first artworks out of his drawing cabinet. There were heaps of them. Out of the joy – or misery – of creation, Ilja had produced ink paintings and font experiments, silk-screen prints and hand-carved wooden printing plates. We were dividing the works into different piles and series; knowing that there would be no shortage of interesting pieces when it came time to choose the final exhibition line-up. The authenticity and simplicity of the works spoke to me. The illustrator often works in the digital space but in these works he had let go of his recognisable style and adopted an experimental craftsmanship steeped in DIY spirit. The subconscious had supplanted the methodical. By the second studio visit the number of prospective exhibit pieces had grown exponentially. Everything was based on material experiments, music and doing things by hand. The diverse elements began to piece together a portrait of a young man.
The topic of youth has interested and perplexed artists throughout the ages. We want to grasp onto authentic portrayals of youth lest we forget what authenticity looks and feels like (Savolainen, 2017). The male identity has been portrayed in Finnish art in several different variations in the past (e.g., Kuchka 2013, Berghäll & Hotakainen 2009, Enckell 1894). Karsikas’ interpretation of the topic looks like himself. A self-portrait from 1992 served as one starting point for the new works. The portraits of Crooked Tree also draw inspiration from other real people who lived in Kajaani in the 1980s. In addition to portraits, the exhibit contains different abstract nature motifs, trees and geometrical shapes. Black, white and grey bring them all together. The hue of untreated wood is the only colour from the spectrum that makes an appearance. The relinquishing of colours elevates the works to a new level and invites closer analysis. ‘When discussing colour saturation, black and white, and especially everything in between, are usually discarded as graphic accessories. People forget how full and colourful black can be (Väisänen, 2008).’
‘Do the things you love,’ Karsikas says when discussing creative work. Crooked Tree is a purely art-centred project and it contains themes familiar from his illustrations. This is not the first time Karsikas has been fascinated with wood as an element. It plays a central role in Amos ja sumupuu (Etana Editions 2017), a picture book written and illustrated by Karsikas. The book deals with an unusual topic as it discusses the depression of a parent from the point of view of the child. The depressed parent in the story is Amos’ father who works too much. The father keeps babbling on about a large tree that grows in his workshop.
Karsikas has also ventured into the world of music, where he has been responsible for creating the visual look for the Ruisrock music festival in the years 2013-2018. He draws inspiration from popular culture as well as the visual arts. Crooked Tree distils The Cure, Suede, The Smiths, Raymond Pettibon, Ina Colliander, Helene Schjerfbeck and Litku Klemetti into a black and white world that is governed by youthful defiance, zen aesthetics and the grittiness and honesty of Finnish rock. ‘In music we are safe,’ says Marko Järvikallas, who is responsible for the dramatic texts of Crooked Tree. The images and texts alternate between memories, delusions and hints of past events. The theme that runs through it all is an undefined longing.
For Karsikas, creating art is often a challenging and frustrating endeavour. He ponders: ‘Why am I doing this (art) again? Does this make any sense? Who am I doing this for? Will this interest anyone?’ Emerging as an illustrator and artist simultaneously is no easy task. In fact, some illustrators have been given advice that they should drop the illustrator label entirely and present themselves simply as artists if they want their work to be recognised. Despite his inner struggle, Karsikas has revealed the unfinished process of Crooked Tree to the public in different ways with faith in the fact that ‘you don’t have to be cool if you’re honest.’ He has shared countless of pictures from different stages of Crooked Tree on social media and talked about his process at an arts seminar in May and at a public event during Helsinki Design Week in September 2018. You can follow the progress of the art project on Instagram and Facebook and listen to the music of Crooked Tree on Soundcloud. One could say that this is all part of an exhibition process that began and was made public long before the traditional moment an exhibit is considered to open; the actual opening of the exhibition.
It all began with a concept and interdisciplinary promises. Over the course of the year, Crooked Tree has begun to take root and sprawl. It has added costumes, staging, photography, video, audio recordings, social media and a website. We do not yet exactly know what the gallery space will look like once Karsikas’ art and all the other elements of Crooked Tree, including projections and percussions, are in place. The comprehensive work of art that is Crooked Tree will be premiering in six weeks at Galleria Kuvitus and this text will form a part of a publication about the exhibit. The exhibit will not be limited to the completed works and end results presented at the opening, but it will also contain the unfinished work stages, uncertainty and expectations that preceded it. Karsikas has expanded the very notion of what an illustration exhibit can be.
The tree grows.
The article was originally published in Vino Puu, a catalog of Ilja Karsikas’s exhibit held November 2nd – December 1st, 2018 at the Galleria Kuvitus.
Karsikas, Ilja 2017: Amos ja sumupuu. Etana Editions, Helsinki.
Väisänen, Hannu 2008: Koiran ja suden välissä. Selections from Saastamoinen Foundation’s art collection. Exhibition list 12.11.2008. EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art.
Savolainen, Anni 2017: Aidon nuoruuden himo. Collecting Social Photo Project 2017-2020. Finnish Museum of Photography. valokuvataiteenmuseo.fi
Karsikas, Ilja 2018: Presentation at Kuvituksen kevät – Kuvitustaiteen Taike-päivä 5.5.2018. Arts Promotion Centre Finland. Helsinki.
Karsikas, Ilja 2018: Presentation at Trust Your Vision @ Helsinki Design Week 9.9.2018. Kuvittajat ry. Helsinki.
Kuchka, Heta 2010: Portrait of a Young Man. HD video, 13 min. AV-arkki.
Berghäll, Joonas, Hotakainen, Mika 2009: Miesten vuoro. Documentary film, 1h 20 min.
Enckell, Magnus 1894: Herääminen. Oil painting. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, Antell Collection.
Born in Helsinki in 1978 and raised in Kajaani, Ilja Karsikas has been working primarily as an illustrator since 2009. The client list of this prolific illustrator includes Ruisrock, the Finnish Post, YLE, University of Helsinki, Tammi, Otava, WSOY, Gummerus, Etana Editions, Elisa, Wärtsilä, Stockmann and Universal Finland. In addition to Karsikas, the Vino puu team includes Marko Järvikallas, Maija Rissanen, Heikki Helanterä, Minerva Kautto, Jonne Sippola, Eetu Linnankivi, Willem Heeffer and Oona Kauhala. Find out more about the Vino puu project.
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